Steam Heat

Special Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean offers this entry to THE LATE SHOW: THE LATE FILMS BLOGATHON —

Steaming is notable for being the last film made by three of its collaborators; Joe Losey, Diana Dors and cinematographer Christopher Challis.  I’m happy to report that Challis is still alive at 91, but Losey and Dors, who were both in poor health at the time of the shoot in early 1984, died shortly afterwards, she in May of that year aged only 52 and he a month later at 75.  It’s sad therefore that this talented team should have produced a work of such disappointing quality and that their careers ended on what must be regarded as a low note.

The project was beset with difficulties from the start.  Casting problems, wrangles over nudity, crew changes and an inflexible set all played their part but the root of the film’s failure seems to lie in its unsatisfactory script, adapted from Nell Dunn’s stage play by Losey’s wife, Patricia.  She and Losey had seen the play together and his biographer reports her as saying “I was so enthusiastic and certain about it that I asked Joe that night to let me do the adaptation.” Losey was apparently anxious to launch her screenwriting career so she would have a means of support after his death and, although others had a hand in it, the script is mostly her work and the inexperience shows.

Even an unrepentant second wave feminist like me finds it hard to watch films from the period such as Agnes Varda’s L’Une Chante, L’autre Pas and  Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman without a slight wince of embarrassment but Steaming had me groaning aloud with my head buried in my hands.

Set in a women’s bath house in East London and with an all-female cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles, it’s crudely put together, full of puzzling non sequiturs and riddled with stereotypes.  They’re all here – the abandoned upper class wife and mother regretting her years of domesticity, the successful career woman longing for a child, and the working class victim of domestic violence who goes back for more.    Why two wealthy women should meet regularly at a shabby east end baths with threadbare towels and cracked tiles instead of an upmarket spa is inexplicable, except for the purposes of a plot that requires them to complete the film’s social class jigsaw.  What unites them is, predictably, their suffering at the hands of men and, for much of the film, the trio sit around in various stages of undress relentlessly bemoaning male shortcomings until even Andrea Dworkin would shout “Enough!”

The manager, played by Dors, is aware of a plan by the local council to close the baths but script and editing blunders result in her not mentioning it to her customers until about half way through the film.  The emphasis then shifts to their campaign against the closure. Unlike the play, the film gives us a happy ending in which the baths are given a temporary reprieve following an impassioned speech to the council (delivered off screen) by the working class woman who – yes, you’ve guessed it – has finally found her voice.

Apart from these four characters, and a rather baffling widowed mother and her daughter whose problems are never fully explained, there is only one other speaking part and we see little evidence of the hundreds of women who, the manager asserts, use the baths every week.  This means the cast have to adopt the kind of frantic mugging that is called for whenever a few people have to convey the impression of being many. An excruciating party sequence requires them to become over excited by a few balloons and sandwiches, and leap to their feet and start dancing manically and badly to undanceable music, invariably a hallmark of a bad film.

Acting styles are far from consistent. Vanessa Redgrave (abandoned upper class wife) and Sarah Miles (career woman) attempt to inject a note of screen naturalism into a theatrical script. As the working class woman, Pattie Love (who played the Sarah Miles part in the original Theatre Royal Stratford production) engages in that style of stage acting that, to quote Quentin Crisp, “embraces us with semaphore gestures and tells us her secrets in the voice of a town crier.” Only Diana Dors manages to look at ease in front of the camera.

If more effort had been made to address the play’s shortcomings, it might have been a better film but it does nothing to transcend its stage origins and they differ very little.  Pages of dialogue are lifted verbatim and there are no exterior shots, the set being made up entirely of a series of rooms within the baths. Losey did not see this as a problem, or chose not to, and told his cast and crew “In my experience cinema can be used in many ways: one of them is to increase enclosure rather than the Hollywood cliché of ‘opening up’.”

Christopher Challis, who was brought in at the last minute after Douglas Slocombe turned the job down, had previously worked with Losey on Blind Date. In an interview with David Caute (Losey’s biographer), Challis described the set as a disaster. “We repainted it, but nothing would float, you couldn’t move anything.  It was wedged in with backing.  The script described atmospheric weather outside, but it was impossible to get it from inside.” One outcome is that there is no sense of the passing of time and it’s not at all clear if the events take place over days, weeks or months.

Caute’s book also reports Slocombe’s damning verdict. Not wishing to offend Losey, he made the excuse that his asthma couldn’t cope with the damp atmosphere, but in reality he hated both the play and the script. ‘I thought it was a nasty, cheap thing for Joe to do, and I thought doing this will kill him.  It did kill him.  Sad to end on that note.”

The film’s reputation has not improved over time and, like the play, has attracted more attention for its glimpses of the naked body than for its political intentions.  Looking at the keywords allocated to it by IMDB (always a revealing exercise) we find the following; female full frontal nudity, female nudity, independent film, based on play.  No feminism there, then.   Of the three user comments on it on the same website, one is from a woman who had to decide whether to accept one of the nude roles in a local stage production, the second from a man who describes it as a ‘British nudie cutie film’ and the third from someone whose comments on other films such as Basic Instinct 2, Intimacy, Sirens, Full Body Massage, Showgirls and Love Crimes leave us in no doubt as to where his interests lie.

It’s significant that Christopher Challis’s autobiography does not mention the film at all.  In fact, there’s a strange omission in his filmography that forms an appendix to the book.  For every other film his name appears as either camera operator or photographer, but the entry for Steaming gives only the names of the producer, writer, director and stars.  Was this deliberate?  A proof reading error?  A Freudian slip?  Let’s just hope that in 1984, when he was 65, he was already planning to retire and not driven to it by his involvement in Steaming.

To end on a more positive note, Challis’s book, aptly titled Are they really so awful?, is the most level headed and good natured account of the filmmaking process I have ever read. It tells the story of his rise from trainee to DoP and his encounters along the way with temperamental colleagues with disarming modesty and considerable tact.  Yes, he concludes, they were awful, but he liked them.

References

Caute, David.  Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life. Faber and Faber, 1994

Challis, Christopher. Are They Really So Awful? Janus Publishing Company, 1995

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10 Responses to “Steam Heat”

  1. Tried to watch STEAMING years ago and only made it through the first 10 minutes. It’s one of a very few films that I actually found physically unbearable to watch. Not quite sure why…as I’m a huge fan of Losey, Vanessa, Sarah Miles. Uh-oh, maybe that IS why!

    Still, this piece makes me wildly curious to sit down and give it another go. Not that I’m expecting it will be any better. But perhaps I’ve developed a stronger stomach in the intervening two decades.

  2. It does somehow repel interest and enthusiasm, no matter how keenly mustered in advance. What might help would be the availability of a copy in the right screen ratio — Losey’s framing is central to his work, as with any director with a visual sense. Some of his films are so strong they can survive even destructive panning and scanning. Others depend largely on visual appeal, and messing with the composition robs them of aboslutely everything. (For me, the Burton and Taylor films couldn’t be viewed in anything but their correct ratios, although the ending of Trotsky is an exception.)

    But given the problems with the set, and Losey’s poor health, maybe this one doesn’t even have strong visuals, in any ratio.

  3. It’s quite a come down in the wake of La Truite — one of the high points of Losey’s career, with Jeanne Moreau delivering one of my all-time favorite movies lines: “Heterosexual, Homosexual — people are either Sexual or they’re not!”

  4. A lot can be chalked up to Losey’s ill-health, and his somewhat desperate choice of material. I must say, his desire to set his wife up as a screenwriter to provide for her future looks tragically naive in light of the implosion of the British film industry…

  5. What surprises me is that Patricia Losey, who seems to have been totally dependent on her husband for employment in the film industry, didn’t see the irony in choosing a piece of feminist polemic for her first screenplay.

  6. David W, I’ll lend you the DVD. In fact, you can keep it!

  7. As the producer says in Sullivan’s Travels, “People always like what they don’t know anything about!”

  8. Nepotism? In the film industry? I’m shocked!

  9. It’s the kind of situation where, if the producers want to hire Losey, they probably have to accept his judgement of who’s best to write the thing: and hope to God his judgement is sound and not based on his personal relation with the screenwriter… If his choice was a good one, nobody would mind that she’s his wife…

  10. It all comes down to the idiotic but widely-held notion that anybody – literally anybody – can write a film script.

    Who knows? Maybe they can. Is that why most films are as bad as they are?

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